The rule of thirds, the spi­ral, the diag­o­nals, the gold­en ratio, the divine pro­por­tion, the shell and the pho­to grid are all about the com­po­si­tion of objects in the frame. You have prob­a­bly heard these terms more than once, and maybe you see them for the first time. I think I won’t be wrong if I assume that about 70% of all pho­tographs in the world are made accord­ing to these com­po­si­tion rules.

We under­stand how the basic com­po­si­tion basics work and how to take com­pe­tent pho­tos using these rules.

Pho­to: neshitoff.livejournal.com

What is the golden ratio and the rule of thirds in composition

The gold­en ratio and the rule of thirds are visu­al­ly com­fort­able and “cor­rect” arrange­ment of objects in the frame. This is what dis­tin­guish­es a “pleas­ant” pho­to­graph from an “unpleas­ant” one in the eyes of a sim­ple view­er who does not under­stand pho­tog­ra­phy. Built accord­ing to these schemes, the image becomes com­plete, with well-placed accents. It is pleas­ant for the eye to look at it, because all the objects inside are in har­mo­nious bal­ance.

Pho­to: aromaesthetica.ru

Com­po­si­tion rules are uni­ver­sal and can be applied to any pho­to. From land­scape to por­trait, from fash­ion to street pho­tog­ra­phy.

How did the golden ratio come about

The first men­tion of the gold­en ratio dates back to the Mid­dle Ages. The math­e­mati­cian Fibonac­ci came to this rule, build­ing his well-known sequence of num­bers (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc.), where the two pre­vi­ous num­bers always add up to the next one in this infi­nite pro­gres­sion .

Lat­er, Leonar­do da Vin­ci wrote about the divine pro­por­tion. He came to the con­clu­sion that the gold­en ratio extends to every­thing around and is found every­where on earth, in flo­ra, fau­na and the very struc­ture of man. Based on this, the draw­ing of the “Vit­ru­vian Man” was born.

Vit­ru­vian Man, Leonar­do da Vin­ci. Source: muzei-mira.com

The Ger­man philoso­pher of the 19th cen­tu­ry Adolf Zeis­ing devel­oped the the­o­ry of the sci­en­tist. He con­duct­ed a study in which he mea­sured more than two thou­sand unre­lat­ed peo­ple, and with them mea­sure­ments of ancient stat­ues. The result was impres­sive, and it was he who gave doc­u­men­tary evi­dence. The the­o­ry has become a fact: almost all parts of the human body are sub­ject to the rule of the gold­en sec­tion, in each of them there is a ratio of the divine pro­por­tion.

Image: shopro.ringsbhfg.ru

The gold­en ratio can be most briefly expressed in rela­tion to the small­er part of the whole to the larg­er, equal to the ratio of the larg­er to the whole. The approx­i­mate val­ue of this pro­por­tion is 1.6180339887. And if you round it up, then — 62% by 38%.


Divine pro­por­tion is a numer­i­cal phe­nom­e­non, but it is eas­i­ly trans­lat­ed into the plane of visu­al art. The essence is sim­ple: the rec­tan­gle is divid­ed into a square and a rec­tan­gle, the small­er of the sides of which is half the side of the square. Next, the result­ing rec­tan­gle is drawn in a sim­i­lar way, then the next one, and so on. Through the result­ing squares, quar­ters of cir­cles can be drawn, con­nect­ing them togeth­er. This will turn out the gold­en ratio, the spi­ral of which can be shift­ed to any image. Its swirling cen­ter is the log­i­cal cen­ter of the pho­to, where the sub­ject should be placed.

Image: wikiwand.com

There is also a more sim­pli­fied scheme: the frame rec­tan­gle is drawn with lines sim­i­lar to those shown below. The points of inter­sec­tion of the lines in the numer­i­cal coef­fi­cient will be 3/8 and 5/8 (the same divine pro­por­tion). It is based on them that you should com­pose a pho­to.

Image: studyfoto.ru/.jpeg

If you still doubt the appli­ca­tion and effi­cien­cy of this rule in prac­tice, then just look at the old­er broth­er of pho­tog­ra­phy — paint­ing. Divine pro­por­tion can be found in a vari­ety of works — mod­ern and long-stand­ing clas­sics.

The Birth of Venus, San­dro Bot­ti­cel­li. Source: izokurs.ru
Morn­ing in a pine for­est, Shishkin. Source: paintingrussia.wordpress.com
Ge, Alexan­der Sergee­vich Pushkin in the vil­lage of Mikhailovsky. Source: paintingrussia.wordpress.com
The Last Sup­per, Leonar­do da Vin­ci. Source: paintingrussia.wordpress.com

Photography and the rule of thirds

The gold­en ratio is close­ly inter­twined with the rule of thirds, anoth­er impor­tant pat­tern when work­ing with the visu­al. Just as pho­tog­ra­phy can be con­sid­ered the younger broth­er of fine art, so the rule of thirds was born from the gold­en ratio.

The main dif­fer­ence is in the aspect ratio. In the case of thirds, the frame is divid­ed into three equal parts, and the gold­en ratio divides it in a ratio of 1:0.618:1.

The rule of thirds can be con­sid­ered a sim­pli­fied ver­sion of the divine pro­por­tion. Most impor­tant­ly, it works!

Gold­en ratio in grid for­mat. Source: fotogora.ru
Rule of thirds grid. Source: fotogora.ru

The lined grid of thirds is built into all mod­ern cam­eras, includ­ing smart­phones. By plac­ing objects on the nodes of con­tact lines, you can build a com­pe­tent com­po­si­tion.

What should you rely on?

  • Inter­sec­tion points on the lines of thirds. By plac­ing the key sub­ject on them, you will make the pic­ture more com­fort­able for per­cep­tion;
Pho­to: prostoloca.ru
  • diag­o­nal com­po­si­tion. This can be either an intu­itive line that can be drawn from the upper cor­ner of the frame to the low­er one, or objects that are locat­ed in such a way that they form this line in their size gra­da­tion. Sev­er­al dif­fer­ent diag­o­nals will add dynam­ics to the frame. An ascend­ing diag­o­nal (from the low­er left cor­ner to the upper right) will cre­ate a major mood of the pic­ture, a descend­ing diag­o­nal will cre­ate a minor one;
Pho­to: fotogora.ru
  • Pro­por­tions. First of all, this con­cerns the rela­tion­ship of objects on dif­fer­ent planes of pho­tog­ra­phy. The same divine pro­por­tion, only trans­ferred to the ratio of an object in the fore­ground to a small­er object in the back­ground (or vice ver­sa);
Pho­to: jamesmaherphotography.com
  • Sky­line. When it comes to land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy, city shots, or gen­er­al shots in por­traits, try to fit the hori­zon line along one of the hor­i­zon­tal third lines. This will make the shot stronger;
Pho­to: top100photo.ru
  • Air. Let the object in the frame “breathe”: if it is a por­trait, leave a space between the edge of the frame and the per­son­’s head. If the per­son­’s gaze is direct­ed to the right, place it at the left inter­sec­tion points of the lines and leave space for the gaze (and vice ver­sa).
Pho­to: digital-photography-school.com

Can this rule be bypassed?

Briefly: yes. A rule is a rule, so it can be sit­u­a­tion­al­ly bro­ken if the cir­cum­stances are right. Let’s look at a few spe­cif­ic cas­es.

  • Sym­me­try. The loca­tion along the axes is good for visu­al per­cep­tion, but not always appro­pri­ate. For exam­ple, if you are plan­ning a per­fect­ly sym­met­ri­cal frame. Then yes, it is worth plac­ing the cen­ter of this sym­me­try exact­ly in the mid­dle;
Pho­to: webneel.com
  • Per­spec­tive. Sym­me­try is not required: the main sub­ject may or may not be locat­ed deep in the frame. Per­spec­tive can be an end in itself and the main tech­nique to enhance the depth of the frame;
Pho­to: expertphotography.com
  • Frames as a com­po­si­tion­al device. Objects in the fore­ground can cre­ate a visu­al sense of a frame, fram­ing the pho­to, even if the rest of the objects aren’t on the lines of thirds;
Pho­to: blenda.by
  • Object in the cen­ter of the frame. Ide­al for shots where there is no sym­me­try, but you need to focus on a spe­cif­ic sub­ject in the frame. This rule is espe­cial­ly worth look­ing at in cas­es where the frame is over­loaded with details;
Pho­to: digital-photography-school.com
  • Strength­en­ing the size of an object. The hori­zon is usu­al­ly rec­om­mend­ed to be placed along one of the lines of thirds. How­ev­er, if you want to enhance the object being shot, then you can ignore this rule and, for exam­ple, move the hori­zon line almost close to the bot­tom of the frame;
Pho­to: http://360photography.in
  • Strength­en­ing the “small­ness” of the object. This can be achieved by cov­er­ing more space around the main sub­ject if it enhances the con­trast. This will cre­ate a visu­al con­tra­dic­tion;
Pho­to: theamericanreader.com
  • Dynam­ics. Any pic­ture will look more dynam­ic if the angle has a slope (aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly — the Dutch angle tech­nique), and in the case of an object — it is not at all in thirds. The object will attract atten­tion even more with com­po­si­tion­al dishar­mo­ny, and the tilt will remove unnec­es­sary sta­t­ic from the per­son in the frame.
A scene from the Har­ry Pot­ter movie. Source: fotogora.ru